Arkansas State University in Jonesboro has long had an impressive athletics record, with a football team that has won five Sun Belt Conference championships and been to a bowl game in nine of the last 10 seasons. And the successes are broad-ranging, with its women’s soccer team winning its first-ever regular-season Sun Belt Conference championship in 2020 and impressive honors in NCAA regional golf tournaments, track and field championships and even a spot as national runner-up this year at the NCAA Championships in bowling.
As a 25-year veteran leader in collegiate and professional athletics, Bowen is a sterling addition to this heady mix of winners, as the new vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics for A-State’s entire athletics department and all 16 of its NCAA FBS and Division I Red Wolves sports teams. His hiring coincides with A-State’s ambitious Discover 2025 Strategic Plan to propel the entire university into keeping up with the top level of 21stcentury success.
Bowen not only has an impressive background on the sports end of college, but in fostering a scholarly attitude among his athletes at his previous posts at the University of Memphis and San Jose State. That fits perfectly with A-State’s commitment to academic excellence, in which the school has set new standards for all-department GPAs every year since 2014-15, last year rising to a Sun Belt Conference-best GPA of 3.48 among its athletes.
The 1983 University of Notre Dame graduate majored in theology/sociology and spent time studying for the priesthood with the Holy Cross Fathers. Bowen earned a master’s degree in administration/education from the University of San Francisco in 1990. He and his wife, Mia, are the parents of three children: sons, Andrew and Peter, and daughter, McKenna.
AMP: You’re overseeing 16 different Red Wolves teams, but your specialty has been in football previously. Will that continue as your primary focus? And what is the biggest challenge you anticipate out of the teams you’re dealing with?
Bowen: I’ve got almost 18 years as an athletic director, at the level of Division One, and it’s my third university to be a part of. I feel that I’m very, very competent in some kinds of major Olympic sports, such as track and field, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis. Here we only have women’s tennis. And then, of course, my background in football.
I’ve always had a great ability to build consensus, hire the right kind of coaches, work with the coaches, give them the right things that need to be successful and create winning programs at the first level of Division one. I certainly will do that here at Arkansas State.
So, in my world, it’s more about creating the right opportunities for them to succeed. The important step number one is to graduate. We’re all about student first, athlete second, and my goal is to have a 100 percent graduation rate here and then basically to win championships and have championship rings, on the other hand. So diploma in one hand, a championship ring the other.
AMP: There’s already been quite a few successes at A-State. Is there anything that you feel you’ve been brought in to help turn around? Is there a particular area that maybe could be doing better that you are being tasked with, you know, bring in up to speed competitively?
Bowen: I’m following Terry Mohajir, who was one of the finest athletic directors. I’m trying to build upon his base and take it to excellence. I would tell you, there’s not any hiccups or, you know, areas that are in major concern right now, but there is the chance to continue to build program success up with capital facilities that we haven’t finished yet. And I see the 2021-22 year coming out of the post-pandemic as a real statement year for the Red Wolf Nation and Arkansas State athletics and everything we’re doing.
I didn’t come here to solve any injustice of the past. I came here to build a tremendous program for the present, the future following Terry’s roadmap, Terry’s, shall we say, blueprint of what it means to be great, to be premiere, the excellent. I don’t see any issues right now. We’re all undefeated. So until the season starts and we start to compete, but right now, it’s about how are you preparing? What’s the offseason look like? Weight training, looking like with conditioning, what’s our sports medicine look like? And those are things we’re focused on.
AMP: You had academic initiatives that you in particular put in place in Memphis. Could you elaborate on that and what ideas you might have specifically to help improve academic performance among the athletes at State?
Bowen: When I started at San Jose State, I inherited an academic disaster. It’s really about the dynamic of us making sure that we’re absolutely engaged in your academic performance. So we do weekly grade checks. We do daily reviews of attendance. We make sure that our student athletes are in class and they’re paying attention.
And you don’t get to participate as an athlete unless you’re doing well as a student. It’s a privilege to be a student-athlete at the university. It’s not a guarantee. It’s not a right. And so that privilege is dedicated and predicated on your ability to be a good student, a good ambassador, and someone who’s actively working towards graduation.
You create a synergy around academics and athletics so we can’t say, hey, go be a poor student. And yet when you play and compete, be really, really good and really focused. It doesn’t work like that. Most human beings can’t be split in half and silos between this effort and that effort. So we know that if you create great synergy on academic success, it will translate into the way you perform athletically.
When I was in Memphis, my last three years, we had a hundred percent graduation rate of my student-athletes. The valedictorian two years in a row was a student-athlete. And we’re continuing that tradition here. We are saying your academic rigor of excellence predicates and determines your ability to be a student and an athlete here.
AMP: There’s a big debate going on in collegiate sports about giving students the right to be compensated for their image and likeness. That’s a controversial issue. Any thoughts about that?
Bowen: Thirty-seven states have now adopted or are beginning to finalize that concept that student athletes deserve to be paid for their image and likeness. Arkansas is one of them. Three years ago, names and likeness became kind of a topic of how to create revenue for student athletes who wanted to market themselves, brand themselves, their image and likeness being used as is done in professional athletics.
Before that, there was no way to compensate you for your face, your number, your jersey, if your picture was used. You could endorse anything and not receive any compensation. So now you have an actual law in the state of Arkansas and 37 other states will have it. I guarantee you some already there where you can now get compensated for your names, your likeness. It is going to overturn college athletics in a way no one thought possible because it’s going to now force college to have to deal with a non-amateur element in the game. So, for example, which student-athletes are allowed to do this? The way the rule reads, everyone can. But you and I both know that I’ve got three hundred and thirty-seven athletes. Not every young athlete has any kind of image, likeness, value. So that’s going to be an interesting dynamic. There is no governance compliance on it yet. We’re waiting for the NCAA to make decisions.
Simultaneously, the Supreme Court of the United States are getting ready to make a ruling at some point in the summer about what athletes are allowed to be given in fair market value. So for the first time in the history of college athletics in 119 years, you’re now seeing the absolute exposure of amateurism versus compensation. And for the first time, compensation is gaining traction in an amateur component of one hundred and nineteen years of amateur athletics. It will be a paradigm shift when we finally figure out what it’s going to look like.